This week: Boris Johnson inadvertently makes the case for Lords reform, some notes on the Holy Roman Empire, and a map of the long lost tram network of Leeds.
When I was young, and fighting it out for the position of the most left wing person in my depressingly Tory A-level politics class, I thought the House of Lords was unconscionable. The Lords then still consisted largely of hereditary peers which tended – shockingly, given that they were a group of landowning nobles – to vote with the Tories; and the first Blair government had recently come to power promising reform.
Like many things the Blair government did, however, reform had gone so far and no farther: hereditaries had mostly been replaced with appointees, which was useful if you were a governing party wanting to keep control of the place, but a bit off if you were, say, a voter. Since the 1999 reforms, the only democratic element has been, hilariously, the bit in which hereditary peers got to vote on which of their number should actually get a seat. This is of course appalling. So for many years I, like rather a lot of people, thought they should tear the whole thing down, and replace it with something more democratic. What kind of clown country has an unelected upper chamber?
As I got older, though, I found my enthusiasm for Lords reform starting to wane. Reporting on the NHS, education or other bits of public policy brought home how much expertise there was in the new, appointed Lords, and the extent to which – against all rational expectations – the unelected house seemed to make legislation better. It didn’t work in theory, sure; but it worked surprisingly well in practice. So after a while my position on the Lords came to resemble my position on the monarchy: if I were starting a country from scratch, I wouldn’t set it up like this; but was it really worth expanding limited political capital when it seemed to be working fine?
Then Labour left office, suddenly it was a Tory prime minister who got to decide on Lords appointments, the rate of life peer appointments shot through the stratosphere, and the thought occurred that maybe “Well it seems to work fine now what’s the use in changing anything” was exactly the same trap the New Labour government had got sucked into.
While we’re thinking about numbers, these endless political appointments have allowed the House of Lords to bloat well beyond sensible size, too: it’s currently the only upper house to be larger than its lower house, and the second largest legislative body in the world. The largest is the Chinese National People’s Congress. Here’s another graph.
(“Ineligible peers” are those who exist but for one reason for another – leave of absence, membership of judiciary, being in prison – cannot currently take their seats, but could, plausibly, return.)
Reports on exactly how many of these peers were appointed by Boris Johnson personally seem to vary – the difficulty of pinning down a number feels like another good reason for reform. But on every number I’ve seen, he appointed over 10% of the membership of Britain’s upper chamber, all of whom, on current rules, will be there until they die. This is of course absurd.
As with so much about our rotten political system, Johnson is as much a symptom as cause: he has done nothing more than behave in a way that the system was not set up to stop. In doing so, though, he has made the case against Lords reform inarguable. There’s no possible “well it works in practice” argument that won’t look ridiculous when faced with a simple description of Johnson’s behaviour. In the same way, there is no argument in favour of the honours system that can survive the fact he proposed his own father for a knighthood.
Keir Starmer has promised to abolish the Lords entirely. I’m not convinced by this – a unicameral legislature, in a system that lacks checks and balances as it is, seems like a very bad idea to me. But the behaviour of the Conservative party has shown quite how corrupt the current system really is. The status quo can’t possibly survive that.
Hey, while we’re talking about antiquated and creaking things that are also far too large…
The many Heinrichs of Reuss: Some thoughts on the Holy Roman Empire
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